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World Cup 2014

Football - A ticket to escape from Brazil's slums

Kids in favelas dream of emulating stars like Neymar who reap big rewards

Published on Jul 14, 2014 8:03 AM

William Sales Santana is not a recognisable name in world football - or even among those familiar with Brazil's domestic game.

But at one point in his life, he dreamt of seeing his name in headlines and hearing it being chanted by adoring fans.

Now aged 27, he has woken up to a different reality.

Initially, there was hope when he was offered a trial with top Brazilian club Gremio more than a decade ago.

But his father's death necessitated a change in plans.

"I had to help out with the family, to make money for them," he says, with a translator conveying to The Straits Times his remarks in Portuguese.

Now, he helps bring in the bacon by serving as a tourist guide in Rio de Janeiro's slums, or favelas. He lives in one in Pavao-Pavaozinho, where a cluster of houses wrap around a hill overlooking the city's iconic Copacabana beach.

From the row of luxurious hotels and condominiums facing the south Atlantic Ocean, it takes only about five minutes to step into a neighbourhood best described as an organised mess.

The eye struggles to make out where one house begins and another ends.

But the close proximity of Copacabana provides an inspiration each day to kids in Pavao-Pavaozinho to make it as a professional footballer and become rich enough to live in a premium residential belt.

Pele, Romario and Ronaldo are some of the famous names who made that leap from the favela.

For a kid growing up in Brazil's slums, these are the superstars, not Peter Pan or Robin Hood, who feature in bedtime stories.

Life in a favela

It is at the height of World Cup fever when Santana takes the ST on a tour of his neighbourhood, with the help of Dutchman Mark Koelen, who runs favela tours and also helps with football programmes in these communities.

We are there to see the football culture in one of Rio's close to 800 favelas and just what futebol, as the locals call it, means to the residents.

As we hike up what seems like an endless flight of winding stairs - in between homes and across central walkways - the favela's hidden secrets emerge.

From far, these shanty towns may look like a large number of homes packed together. But a whole ecosystem of provision shops, tailors, eateries, barbers and even ATM machines has also taken root.

It is estimated about 12 million people, or about 6 per cent of Brazil's 200 million population, live in favelas.

Government initiatives such as offering residents formal job contracts and keeping inflation under control have helped improve social conditions.

In 2002, only 1 per cent of those living in favelas belonged to Brazil's upper class, defined as having a monthly family income that exceeded 3,876 real (S$2,165), according to the criteria of the Office of the President's Secretariat for Strategic Affairs.

In 2012, this figure rose to 11 per cent, according to government figures.

At the same time, the middle class (those earning 1,110 to 3,875 real), grew from 29 to 59 per cent of favela residents.

And the lower class (those earning less than 1,109 real), dropped from 70 to 30 per cent.

It is evident as we walk through Pavao-Pavaozinho - flat-screen TVs adorn the living rooms of many homes, even as the stench of poor sanitary conditions lingers in the air.

Many of the better-off residents are small business owners, in ventures such as water and gas distribution and provision shops.

But despite the promise and stability that these career paths can bring, the No.1 aspiration among young boys in the slums is still to be a footballer.

Favela futebol

Finally, Santana points to a clearing after about a 10-minute hike. A concrete court, about the size of a volleyball court, sits on the edge of a hill. He runs excitedly down a flight of stairs, disappears into a house and pops out with a ball.

"Bola (ball in Portuguese)!" he says with a smile. He starts juggling it and is soon joined by kids from neighbouring homes.

"Profissional (professional)!" they greet him, his what-could-have-been tale obviously not lost on kids more than half his age.

The court offers great views of Rio's scenic coastline but little protection for the ball - or player going off the hill.

"That's how we train our skills," said Santana, adding that any mishit ball will require the errant player to take a five-minute trek down the slope to retrieve it and return.

Yet, the court is where the lesser-skilled ones play. The bigger boys stake out a sandy pitch further up the favela.

Santana takes us there just before the daily games begin at around 4.30pm. At times, there is formal coaching but, mostly, the occasion is for honing skills before trying out for a team.

"Only one person from this favela has made it to play in Europe; even then, it was in the smaller leagues," says Santana.

He adds that one often has to be chummy with coaches with connections to Rio's top clubs like Flamengo and Vasco da Gama in order to get spotted.

Joao Silva, technical director of Boavista, who compete in Rio's lower leagues, tells the ST: "We always have footballers coming from the poor communities."

"About 95 per cent of our players across our senior team and four age-group teams come from the slums," he notes, adding that the Rocinha and City of God favelas are good sources of talent.

Yet, even if they do earn a contract with a Brazilian club, there are about 20,000 registered players and the rewards are slim.

Around 85 per cent of the country's professionals earn less than $1,000 a month and some even play for food and board.

Most are effectively out of work at least half the year.

Interest in the domestic game is at an all-time low, with even top clubs like Flamengo having to settle for crowds of less than 500 for some fixtures. With money not flowing into clubs, it is little wonder they turn to exporting talent as a major income source.

According to figures released by world football's governing body Fifa last year, Brazil had 618 outgoing transfers in 2012, the highest in the world. The top destination for these players, with an average age of about 24.3, was Portugal. Brazilian clubs made a net profit of US$121,237,000 (S$150 million) from transfers in 2012.

Europe beckons

Efforts are being made to revitalise the domestic game, including a call by Brazil President Dilma Rousseff, in an exclusive interview with CNN, to stop exporting the best players.

But on the ground, the dream is still very much to follow the paths taken by Romario, Ronaldo and Neymar to the lucrative European leagues where Neymar earns about €7 million (S$11.8 million) annually.

Observes Belgian photographer Bart van Bambost, who spent the last month documenting how the World Cup affects life in the favelas: "To the kids, football is a ticket out. These kids pay more attention to their football coaches than teachers."

Whether it is kids from Rio's favelas or the street kids who play on Salvador's beaches, the World Cup hosted in Brazil has only fuelled their ambitions.

For the past month, they have seen the glitz and glamour of the beautiful game up close and the rewards one can reap.

As a teen in Pavao-Pavaozinho tells me as I bid the group of wanna-be professional footballers farewell: "Copa du Mundo, I play."

His friends roar with laughter. But they probably harbour the same hopes.

The World Cup may have left Brazil. But for these kids, it will perpetually tantalise on their horizon.

Background story


Only one person from this favela has made it to play in Europe.

- Pavao-Pavaozinho resident William Sales Santana on the challenge of getting a break

From favela to fame

  • Garrincha: Pau Grande, Rio de Janeiro
  • Pele: Bauru, Sao Paulo
  • Jairzinho: Rio de Janeiro
  • Romario: Jacarezinho, Rio
  • Cafu: Jardim Irene, Sao Paulo
  • Ronaldo: Bento Ribero, Rio
  • Ronaldinho: Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul
  • Adriano: Vila Cruzeiro, Rio